The Incredible Hulk


The Incredible Hulk (2008) is the second installment of the MCU and acts as both a reboot of the Hulk cinematic presence as well as a loose sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). It stars Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner, a role that was recast with Mark Ruffalo for all consequent MCU films.

As I make my way through the entire MCU, I braced myself for The Incredible Hulk, aware of the stigma attached to it. I got the feeling that after Ruffalo’s successful portrayal of Banner/the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Norton’s version of the Hulk was swept under the rug. I expected this to be the worst of the MCU, but I was pleasantly surprised. I was impressed with the first half of the film. The opening credits multi-task by summarizing Banner’s origins with the Hulk and his need to flee the United States. Once the film begins, no time is wasted on yet another origin story. The film starts with Banner in Brazil, trying to keep a low profile while also learning techniques to repress his anger. During the first act, Banner does not speak very much; the narrative is told mostly through visuals, which I found refreshing. I like to be engaged by the film without relying on dialogue to make up for creative deficiencies. As Banner makes his way back to the United States, he desperately wants to reunite with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), but he finds her with another man, Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell). I find Banner’s and Ross’ relationship very organic in this film. He looks at her with such longing, and the second she sees him again after who knows how long, her face radiates the same longing. It’s during scenes between Banner and Ross where Craig Armstrong’s score truly shines. His music adds a depth to their relationship that I feel may shine brighter than pairings in the other MCU films. The first half of the film felt like a character study on Banner, whose portrayal by Norton was nuanced and sensitive. I enjoyed that the narrative was exploring his character through his time on the run, his relationship with Betty, and his incredible sense of self-control.

That being said, what follows cheapens the solid foundation set up in the beginning. Tim Roth plays a strange character, Emil Blonsky, who is hired to help contain Banner. After seeing the Hulk in action, he starts to lust for his power and ends up convincing General Ross (William Hurt) to expose him to some of the same radiation that was exposed to Banner. This doesn’t make much sense. General Ross is hellbent on containing Banner, to take his blood and make him a weapon and to keep him from unleashing terrible destruction — but he somehow thinks Blonsky may be able to control himself? Well, Blonsky ends up getting the full gamma treatment and becomes Abomination, making the last act basically a monster showdown. It’s a superhero film cliché becoming more prevalent, notably in Man of Steel. It’s so disappointing watching a sensitive and thoughtful set up unravel into a pit of convention and mediocrity.

Along those lines, it’s also disappointing to explore Norton’s Banner only to leave him forever. I didn’t see The Incredible Hulk before the Avengers films, so I feel connected to Ruffalo’s Banner — but I enjoyed seeing what Norton did. Despite all his professionalism problems, his work is marvelous and he brought a subtlety to a Marvel character that perhaps hasn’t been seen since. The next time I see The Avengers, I’ll wonder if Banner thinks about Betty.

Trainwreck


It’s amazing how Trainwreck (2015) and When Harry Met Sally manage to do the same thing through very different approaches.

Trainwreck is a romantic comedy written by and starring Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow. We are entering a new age of Schumer, who will undoubtedly write more films in the future. The film follows the life of Amy, who grew up believing her father’s words that “monogamy isn’t realistic” and flails through dating with that mentality.

For me, personally, I judge a rom-com off two main principles: 1) How well I can step into the female character’s shoes and relate to her, and 2) How much I like the male lead and imagine myself with him. In regards to the second point, Trainwreck is a home-run for me. Bill Hader co-stars as Dr. Aaron Connors,  sports doctor about whom Amy writes an article. He is a fantastic romantic leading man. He’s got it all: looks, charisma, humor, and a realness about him that really draws you in. He’s sweet and caring, always there for Amy. He’s skyrocketed to one of my favorite romantic comedy leading man, because he’s such a sweet guy who genuinely cares for his partner — who also likes spooning.

There’s a little friction with the first point. In case you missed it, Amy is the titular train wreck. She’s got some issues, explained right off the bat from her father explaining his divorce to his daughters. Somehow her sister Kim (Brie Larson) escaped childhood without any long-term social damage, but Amy is a different story. I can absolutely relate to how an experience growing up can have repercussions in adulthood and with dating/relationships. I also admire her confidence and humor. I’m, thankfully, just not a train wreck like her, so it’s hard to put myself in her shoes in the rom-com, especially when Aaron is being so good to her. But the whole point is that Amy is flailing through life, while having fun and starting a career, and now that she’s met someone worthwhile to her, she can finally address all those issues she’s let be to finally feel grounded. I know it’s a strange thing to say from a raunchy romantic-comedy, but I absolutely feel inspired to address my own issues — but then I might miss my chance to dance with the Knicks cheerleaders for a man.

Schumer writes a hilarious, semi-autobiographical film, filled with laughs and gasps. In many ways, I see this as a ramped up version of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, as the heroine of the story pushes away the guy she loves, and manages to win him back partly through leaving a trashy magazine and applying her talents to a more prestigious publication. Schumer’s writing and performance are stellar. Her humor is not for everyone, but her story is multi-dimensional. The speech she wrote for her father’s funeral is gritty and unexpected, a transformation of what it means to be brutally honest. Then in the ending of the film, which, for a rom-com, is the sentimental and tear-inducing part of the film, she alternates layers of huge laughs and tears one right after the other, to delay that inevitable ending. Haider and Larson both give flawless performances, along with the true shapeshifter of our time, Tilda Swinton, playing Amy’s boss Dianna. (We need to talk about this second collaboration between Swinton and Ezra Miller since We Need to Talk About Kevin). The two movie theaters in Chicago that I’ve gone to this weekend have both had sold-out screenings of Trainwreck, so it appears to be doing very well. It’s a raunchy and hilarious take on the romantic comedy, and a first step in the limelight of many by comedy goddess Amy Schumer.

Iron Man


Iron Man (2008) is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — and extensive network of films introducing various Marvel superheroes and characters that leads to the exciting joining of forces with the Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. quintessentially stars as genius billionaire Tony Stark, who runs Stark Industries, primarily a weapons manufacturing business.

Starting the MCU with Iron Man was a great choice. Up to that point, most superheroes that have graced the silver screen were overly known, immensely popular names, like Superman and Batman — and on the Marvel side, Spiderman. Kicking off a giant movie franchise with a more unknown character made Marvel seem fresh and energetic, a quality that they have kept going with films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. With fun writing and impeccable casting, Marvel has introduced various characters into the pop cultural lexicon, like Tony Stark.

RDJ plays Stark with a finesse that has only improved over the years. He absolutely embodies Tony Stark, who is a careful balance of “endearing asshole”. RDJ delivers lines with command but also exudes an incredible amount of charm. That, mixed with Stark’s character change from profiteer to humanitarian, wins over the audience’s hearts. Iron Man‘s success and popularity would undoubtedly be less without Robert Downey Jr.

Director Jon Favreau also brought in fresh ideas for Iron Man. He modernized Iron Man’s origin story to resonate more with audiences. His collaboration with composer Ramin Djawadi brought a head-banging’ score filled with hip rock guitar. He set the film on the West Coast, reasoning that he was tired of superhero movies set mostly in New York. Favreau’s vision was singular in creating the right energy and momentum to start off the MCU. Iron Man even originated Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), whose part was initially much smaller but was further incorporated due to his great chemistry with the rest of the cast — a decision that would lead to the emotional crux to The Avengers and ABC’s spin-off series Agents of SHIELD.

Iron Man is a fresh and energetic superhero action film that introduced Tony Stark and Iron Man to the world. RDJ gives a flawless and youthful performance, perfectly donning the Stark persona. Iron Man is a wonderful start to the MCU that will grow into a vastly entertaining superhero franchise.

Ant-Man


Ant-Man (2015) is the final film of Phase Two in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It introduces Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, and his passing the torch to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd).

What a fun movie! Paul Rudd is absolutely endearing and such a funny guy. His superhero persona channels Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord over the more serious Avengers superheroes in the MCU, but, jokes aside, he does have a serious motivation: his daughter. He’s a hero in her eyes, and he wants to prove to her and every one else that he isn’t a lost cause. Pym isn’t as messed up as he is in the comics, but there is a huge rift between him and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). She is a strong and focused woman, an expert in everything her father mastered — everything from fighting skills to communicating with ants. Lilly, as always, puts on a superb performance, transcending the script more than was perhaps imagined. Similarly, Judy Greer’s few scenes as Lang’s ex-wife are scene-stealers. Every thing she does looks perfectly natural and effortless. (Someone write a leading role for Judy Greer, please.)

I still have trouble grasping the idea of Ant-Man. It’s hard for me to accept a shrunken superhero who fights with normal-sized superheroes. I concede that I have seen giants fighting with normal-sized superheroes, like Juggernaut in X-Men and I suppose the Hulk, but going the other way is strange. Half the time I was laughing at how funny it is to watch tiny superheroes fighting, like on the train set. As fun as it is to watch, and as fun as it makes a movie night out, it’s hard for me to take seriously, which I get isn’t the point — but at some point Ant-Man (and Wasp!) will join up with the Avengers and I can’t even imagine how that will work out. But that’s my own issue. I look forward to Phase Three of the MCU, which starts with Captain America: Civil War where Ant-Man will make his next appearance. It’s also weird watching ants doing strategic missions. It’s both absurd and frightening — I might have ant army nightmares.

Ant-Man is a lot of fun, what with Rudd’s funny and sometimes awkward jokes and Michael Peña’s excellent storytelling; however, it is a pretty generic superhero film: origin, training, execution. Luckily, there are all the fun elements to make it not so pedantic, largely coming from the solid cast. When Iron Man came out, his was a character that was not very familiar outside of the comic books world, but now he is a household name. I like that Marvel is including less known characters, like Ant-Man and The Guardians of the Galaxy. Enjoy a summer night with Ant-Man, and make sure that you stay until the very end of the end credits hint hint nudge nudge.

Slow West


John Maclean’s debut film Slow West (2015) is a quirky Western that blends together several genres: the Western, romance, the coming-of-age story, and the road movie. Slow West accounts the journey of Scottish man Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) across America to find the woman he loves, Rose (Caren Pistorius), a fellow Scot who is on the run in the American West with her father, John (Rory McCann). Along his journey, Jay meets and travels with the mysterious Silas (Michael Fassbender).

It didn’t hit me until several listens of the soundtrack to realize that Slow West is a retelling of Orion the Hunter. The soundtrack is structured by alternating between tracks of dialogue from the film and tracks from Jed Kurzel’s beautiful score. The first track from the soundtrack is “Orion’s Belt”, a bit of dialogue from the very beginning where Jay looks up at the sky and identifies constellations. Once he finds Orion’s constellation, he takes his gun and pretends to shoot the three stars that make up Orion’s belt. Jay is Orion. Orion’s story is a tragic love story, just like Jay’s. Jay, being an innocent lad from Scotland and making his way through the rugged American West in a suit, is not a skilled hunter like Orion. He’s only a hunter in the sense that he is out hunting for Rose. In some versions of the myth, it is Artemis herself who unknowingly kills Orion with her bow and arrow instead of Scorpio – which is mirrored in Jay and Rose’s final meeting. There’s even a flashback scene where Rose asks Jay how he’d like to die and he responds, “By bow and arrow,” and she simulates killing him with a bow and arrow. After his death, Jay’s memory isn’t broadly remembered in the way Orion is remembered in the stars; however, his is memory lives on with Silas, whose life is drastically changed when he settles down and raises a family with Rose. Silas expected to survive the West until he died, but Jay’s (possibly naïve) positive outlook on life showed Silas that there’s more than just survival. It’s a lovely interpretation of the Greek myth, subtle yet meaningful.

One of the most important themes in the film is that things are not as they appear to be. The film itself is structured in a way that continually defies expectations. The earlier flashbacks, introducing Jay’s character, show him and Rose in what appears to be a requited romantic relationship, but as the story unfolds, the true nature of their relationship is revealed. Similarly, Silas joins Jay on his journey, and his motivations slowly are deconstructed throughout the film. Almost every character is not who s/he appears to be. Werner, the traveling writer, appears to be a friendly man who gives Jay shelter for the night, until he steals everything from him while he sleeps. Rose appears to be a girl in need of rescuing, until she shows she can absolutely take care of herself in the shoot out scene. Silas is a rugged and cynical man, but his transformation in the end is quite drastic. Jay is the only character in the film that is exactly as he seems: an idealistic and innocent boy chasing love, delusional as it may be.

Slow West has many quirks. While set in the American West, near Colorado, the film is actually shot in New Zealand, giving the film a Middle-Earth feel. This causes a subliminal disjunction of location, another iteration of the theme that things are not always what they appear to be, giving this Western a fantastical quality. Another quirk in the film is Maclean’s use of mise-en-scène. Maclean presents the West as rugged and dark, which makes the first glimpse of Rose’s cabin a stark contrast. It’s a clean-cut, perfectly built cabin with bright white walls. On the shelves in the cabin are charming trinkets and labeled condiments. The cabin looks like a Wes Anderson set. This unexpected aesthetic serves to further differentiate Rose and her father from the setting as well as further agonizing the audience when Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his gang of outlaws descend on their pleasant and humble home.

Maclean also has a flair for the exaggerated, perfectly exemplified in Jay’s final scene. His love has in fact become his downfall, and if that wasn’t painful enough, Maclean adds salt to his wound – literally. Bullets from Payne’s gang fly through the window and break open a bottle of salt that falls right over Jay’s open wound. Despite all the quirks and humor, Maclean is ever aware of the fatal reality that was the American West. After the shoot out, a reverse-order homage to all the fallen in the film plays out in a reverent montage. While Rose and Silas are fortunate enough to live out a peaceful life, it did not come without a cost.

The (D)Evolution to Jurassic World


Jurassic Park captured the imagination of both children and adults alike by bringing to life long lost dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg blended together a chilling science-fiction tale with the majesty of living and breathing dinosaurs to create a cult classic. Twenty-two years later, Jurassic World is breaking box office records by stunning audiences with a fully functional dinosaur theme park. Sitting in the theater before the movie started, my date asked if I would go to that dinosaur theme park, and I responded, “Well, we now have four films telling us not to go.” Then the film started and Michael Giacchino’s score guides the audience through the incredible features of the theme park, from the dinosaur petting zoo, the herbivore river tour, and the Mosasaurus water show. At that moment, I leaned over and whispered, “Yes, I would go”. How could you not want to go? John Hammond’s dream is finally realized! But the bravado of Jurassic Park falls short in Jurassic World. The latter pokes fun at the idea of bigger and badder means better, but the film essentially embraces that idea in its narrative. Spielberg has the perfect formula for Jurassic Park, but its three sequels all flounder in their imitations. What has caused this devolution from a thoughtful and portentous story to a flashy summer blockbuster?

Storytelling is fundamental to what made Jurassic Park the successful film that it is. Spielberg is a master storyteller, who goes to great lengths for the believability and magic of a good story. In Jurassic Park, it’s evident that his first priority was telling a cogent story. In fact, there’s no one storyline for Jurassic Park; it all depends on how you look at it. This is the story of how John Hammond’s most profound dream crumbles before his very eyes. It’s the story of how Dr. Grant learns to appreciate and protect childhood. It’s also the story of how human hubris could cost humanity itself. It’s the story of how Dr. Sattler figures out what she really wants in life. It’s a story about how life, uh, finds a way. Use this story test on Jurassic World, and the outcomes are not as numerous. Jurassic World is the story of stopping a super dinosaur. That’s it. To be fair, it could also be the story of how Claire, after what seems like years of devoting herself to her job, suddenly realizes that she wants and needs children to fulfill her life and conveniently finds that possibility in the hunky arms of Owen – which is an all too familiar and lazy female character trope. The visitors of Jurassic World want a bigger and scarier dinosaur, and, judging by its incredible sales so far, 2015 moviegoers want a flashier yet shallower film.

A core flaw in Jurassic World’s storytelling deals with villainy. Jurassic Park did not have a villain, per se. Dennis Nedry was a greedy man, but even if his plans had come to fruition, it would not have caused the kind of damage that occurred in the film. The hurricane that hit the island was an unfortunate incident that certainly acted as a catalyst for many of the events in the film, but it was by no means a villain. The brilliance that Spielberg brings to the story is that Hammond and his geneticists were their own villains. They, like the creators of the Titanic, felt that they had a handle on every situation and outcome — that they were indestructible. Enter the selfish computer programmer and the tropical storm and it’s clear just how delusional they are. Their own hubris is the “villain”; they are their own downfall. This makes for a true science fiction story, portentous at heart, warning society of the danger of thoughtless technological advancement. Dr. Malcolm perfectly sums it up: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Upon first glance, it appeared that Jurassic World was going to take a similar approach. Claire talks about how the park needs new attractions every so often and that kids want a bigger and scarier dinosaur with more teeth. When the Indominus Rex is introduced as a completely genetically engineered dinosaur, a brand new and original dinosaur species, it looks like hubris in genetics is the villain again, only ramped up a notch – which would have been a genuine story to tell. Instead, the film actually has villains, InGen’s Vic Hoskins and nostalgic Dr. Wu,  who have concocted a laughable and contrived plan to create a genetic hybrid dinosaur army. It’s clear from the first moments of watching Owen interact with the velociraptors that he’s not in any position to control the dinosaurs, yet Hoskins’s resolve to use the raptors in battle doesn’t waver. Let’s say there ever is a plan to create a non-human army, wouldn’t the logical first step be to use animals that humans can already somewhat control? Dogs? Horses? That Jurassic World goes from zero to genetically altered super dinosaur is altogether idiotic and absolutely takes from the verisimilitude in the story. With this storyline, Colin Trevorrow puts the narrative secondary to the wow factor.

Another creative flaw deals with dinosaur screen time. Out of the 127-minute long Jurassic Park, dinosaurs appear on screen for only fifteen minutes. This caused a lot of uproar from moviegoers hoping to see more dinosaurs on screen. Because of this, writers included more dinosaurs in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and the trend continued with Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World. In all my years watching Jurassic Park, I have never felt cheated of dinosaur onscreen time, and that is because Spielberg was economical with his time. Sure, at the time, creating dinosaur animatronics (auto-erotica, as Gennaro humorously calls them) and CGI dinosaurs was a challenge, but when dinosaurs are on screen, it’s meaningful. Dinosaurs are exploring their world without a cage, and humans are interacting with herbivores in astonishing ways. Spielberg is also showing the world just how smart these animals potentially could have been. That is what makes Jurassic Park so terrifying – you don’t know what these beasts are capable of. In the following films, there is a lot more dinosaur screen time, but there is also a lot more destruction for destruction’s sake. It’s as if the dinosaurs in the sequels are less animals and more pure monster. It makes for some suspenseful watching, but it makes for lazy and trifling writing.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Jurassic World. I love dinosaurs and it was exciting seeing the fully functional and, up to that point, safe dinosaur theme park. I imagined myself spending hours in the dinosaur petting zoo or kayaking down the river alongside sauropods and stegosaurs. If I ignore the deficiencies in storytelling and take the movie for what it is — a summer thriller — I can enjoy Jurassic World. And to his credit, Trevorrow truly ups the ante with the Indominus Rex. He’s a ferocious and intelligent dinosaur with long, grasping arms, capable of camouflage. The film gets increasingly hopeless when the Indominus Rex turns the raptors to his side. It seems like there is no winning scenario – unless you gang up the fan-favorite Tyrannosaurus Rex and velociraptor together and lure the Indominus to the water’s edge to unleash Chekhov’s Mosasaurus. An easy out, yes, but I was absolutely engaged and stressed out. Jurassic World was meant to thrill, and it accomplished its objective, though it falls short of Spielberg’s objective to tell a good story. This narrative devolution from Jurassic Park to Jurassic World directly reflects on the cinematic devolution over the past two decades.